In the Crosshairs

2020 Candidates’ Sights on Guns


Photo graphic by Wesley Henshaw.

Wesley Henshaw, Editor-in-Chief

To say that gun control is a contentious issue is an understatement. Ever since the tragic shootings at Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas in early August, the arguments for and against various types of gun control have completely dominated the political landscape and the public consciousness.

Though the debate has been a heated one for a while, discussion spiking after the Parkland shooting in early 2018, it was the dual shooting on Aug. 4 combined with the current presidential race that has spawned some of the most serious and interesting legislative proposals in years.

However, in these various proposals and propositions it is easy to get lost, and easier to not even know where to begin. Whether it be universal background checks, red-flag laws, or any other proposed legislation, it is important to understand what these mean, because depending on who you vote for, there might be a discrepancy of definition.

First, for a little more background on this debate, we go back to the tragedies at Dayton and El Paso once more. While tragic in its own right, it was considered an even greater tragedy in its presentation of the greater issue at large, that mass shootings have unfortunately become an inescapable fear of the American people. As of writing, has the count set at 346 mass shooting in 2019.

As a result of this particularly upsetting situation, Senator Cory Booker, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, stated he was “sick and tired of thoughts and prayers” and set forth what he calls he the “most comprehensive gun violence prevention plan of any candidate for president in decades.”

Upon doing so, nearly all of the other Democratic candidates quickly adopted a similar plan for their campaign, albeit with some minor changes. But, it would not be wise to assume that a vote for a Democratic candidate means the same gun policy across the board. Some of these seemingly minor changes may have major repercussions if implemented.

So, let’s first turn towards all of the many commonalities and break down what those mean.

Universal Background Checks

Universal background checks is a term that you have most likely heard, and for good reason. Nearly every single Democratic candidate supports implementing this in some way. Hearing the term “universal background checks” probably poses the question, “don’t you have to go through a background check to get a gun anyway?” Well, yes and no. It is already a requirement that all licensed firearm distributors must run the purchaser through a background check. Depending on the state, this is either done through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the state’s own background check system, or a combination of the two.

However, this only applies to licensed dealers. Unlicensed dealers do not have to run a background check. This includes the transactions made at gun shows, flea markets, and online. And while sellers can be held legally responsible for selling a gun to someone who is a prohibited buyer, that is only if they do so knowingly. Meaning, it might actually be to their benefit to not run the check as “the less they know, the better.”

Universal background checks would seek to close this gap by requiring that background checks be required by all sellers, as the title implies. Though, some have chosen to support “near-universal” background checks, like Senator Kamala Harris, who suggested background checks need to be run by people who sell more than five guns in a year. This would exempt those who are simply selling or gifting a gun to a family member or friend, provided they fall beneath the threshold.

Federal Licensing System

One of the ideas proposed by Booker that many have adopted is a federal gun licensing system. Unlike the various permits that one can obtain, depending on state law, this system would operate on the federal level and act very much like getting a driver’s license.

A federal gun license would require extensive background checks and paperwork, but mainly it would require training in the safe use and storage of that firearm.

The sentiment behind this popular idea is that we require a license that displays your eligibility to operate a car, an object that can be dangerous, yet we do not require similar showings of eligibility for guns, actual weapons.

The introduction of a licensing system coincides with the idea of universal background checks, as you would have needed to complete them in order to purchase a firearm anyway. Candidates have also put a renewal period on the plan, the common consensus being that renewal of the license should be required every five years. Much like a driver’s license, this license could be taken away on the basis of criminal offenses.

According to Giffords Law Center at, a study of 80 large urban counties has found a correlation between the implementation of laws like this and an 11 percent decrease in firearm homicides. When Connecticut implemented a licensing system, the state experienced a 40 percent decrease in firearm homicide and a 15 percent decrease in firearm suicide. In contrast, Missouri repealed their licensing system in 2007 and our firearm homicide rate increased by 25 percent.

It therefore makes sense to many candidates that a system of some sort be implemented to insure those that are purchasing firearms are deemed eligible.

Assault Weapon Ban and a Buyback

Out of all of these proposals, an assault weapons ban is a rather controversial and murky one. Most controversial in this proposal is the definition on which it is based. As implied by the title, this proposal would restore the 1994 assault weapon ban or expand on it. The original law was both heavily praised and criticized, but in general it seemed to be agreed upon that the original plan had some failings, either going too far or not far enough.

Most of the issues people had with the ban surrounded its definition of “assault weapon.” The original ban targeted specific semi-automatic firearms and various specific features. In general, the idea of the assault weapon is any “military-style” firearm, typically a rifle, that fires high-powered ammunition at a rapid rat, and any features that increase its ability to fire multiple rounds in a short amount of time or make it more suited to combat contribute to this classification.

It is important to note, most civilian owned firearms are semi-automatics. A semi-automatic firearm is simply any firearm that, upon firing a round, readies the next round to be fired automatically, but requires an additional trigger pull to discharge the round. This includes nearly all handguns and many rifles. Fully automatic requires that a round is fired, the next round is reloaded, and that round is discharged with one trigger pull. There are also single shot firearms, these requiring manual loading between rounds (i.e. many revolvers, pump action shotguns, lever action rifles, etc.). Often these terms get confused.

The candidates who support the restoring of the old ban, or even creating a new one, propose the prohibition of the manufacture of assault weapons. This would mainly target firearms such as the AR-15, a civilian version of the M16, the AK-47, and various other civilian variants of military rifles. For most candidates, the plan is simply to prevent further manufacturing and not affect the firearms currently in distribution. Though, a buyback system, supported by the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as others, would either allow or force, civilians to sell their assault weapons to the government. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke made headlines when he quite vehemently supported a buyback program in a Democratic debate, saying, “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15s.”

In addition to the assault weapons themselves, a serious point in this conversation is the use of certain modifications or attachments. Some of the most talked about ones are high capacity magazines, pistol grips, folding or telescoping stocks, and bump stocks, a device that utilizes the recoil of a semi-automatic weapon to mimic the fast firing rates of an automatic firearm. Many claim that these regulations are too harsh, suggesting that many of the attachments in question are by and large cosmetic, and that the term assault weapon should only be applied to fully-automatic weapons.

The research isn’t as conclusive on this topic, many sides picking up various parts of the same studies to support their position. Suffice it to say the research is mixed.

Closing Loopholes

Already having touched on some loopholes, there are a select few that candidates have decided to focus on. Here are the loopholes candidates consider the most problematic.

One we’ve already mentioned, though not by name, is the gun show loophole. This is in essence what was already described in “Universal Background Checks” section. The loophole goes by many different names based on medium of purchase, but it basically boils down to unlicensed gun dealers (online, at flea markets, at gun shows) not being required to run background checks.

Another loophole is called the boyfriend loophole. The innocuous name severely undermines the sinister implications of this loophole. When purchasing a firearm, people  with a history of domestic violence misdemeanors are prohibited from owning a firearm. This is because of something known as the Lautenberg Amendment, put into place in 1968. However, strangely, there exists a loophole within this amendment wherein it only applies if the individual is or was married to, living with, or the guardian of their victim, or shares a child with the victim. Meaning, someone convicted of domestic violence crimes in a dating relationship can still get a gun, even if they have a restraining order or other protective order against them. Considering that studies have found that intimate homicides against women are committed by dating partners just as much spouses (48.6 percent and 46.7 percent respectively), this is a point found on nearly every candidate’s plan of action.

Some other interesting, albeit upsetting, loopholes that exist are the Charleston loophole, the hate crime loophole, and the fugitive from justice loophole. The first of these, the Charleston loophole, refers to how the FBI is granted three days to run a background check on someone purchasing a firearm and if they do not complete it within that time, the seller can sell the gun to the purchaser. While a relatively small amount of people slip through the cracks here, it is how the Charleston shooter was able to purchase his gun even though he had been found in possession of drugs previously and therefore would not have passed the background check. Due to what amounted to a clerical error, he slipped through the cracks and was allowed to purchase a firearm.

The second loophole mentioned is simply that those convicted of a hate crime misdemeanor are not prevented from buying a gun nationwide (only in a select few states does this not apply). The final loophole mentioned, the fugitive from justice loophole, is a fairly recent one, wherein 70,000 people with outstanding warrants were purged from the FBI’s database because of a change of the definition of “fugitive from justice” to only include those who have crossed state lines.

When it comes to closing these loopholes, it would simply require a piece of legislation to address the presented issue. Candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris have brandished the power of the executive order, promising to enact many of their proposals within their first 100 days.

Repealing Liability Protection

One of the biggest issues facing politicians trying to push gun control is the addressing of the companies that manufacture and distribute firearms. It’s difficult to enforce any policy about guns without addressing the source.

A proposal that has gotten some grounding is repealing The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and other individual laws that act to shield gun manufacturers and distributors from legal liability for any illegal actions committed using their products. Keep in mind, they still can be held responsible for any damages resulting from defective products, but again this does not apply to criminal activity involving the product.

By repealing this, candidates such as Booker hope to ensure that gun manufacturing companies can be held responsible for part of the gun violence epidemic.

In addition to increasing liability, a large goal for Democratic candidates in the race is to be able to regulate gun manufacturing and allow for the implementation of more safety systems in guns.

Red Flag Laws

A largely supported policy proposal, also being supported by current president and likely Republican nominee Donald Trump, red flag laws also known as extreme risk protection laws have been gaining traction.

Red flag laws would address the issue of “threats” being in possession of firearms. A red flag law would ask that close friends, family members, teachers, neighbors, and police officers report individuals that could potentially pose a serious risk or threat. In reporting them, a judge could then issue a demand to take all of the firearms owned by the individual.

This type of law is obviously a response to tragic situations like the Parkland shooting wherein multiple people had reported that the shooter was showing signs of being a danger and a threat.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg raises the point on his website that since roughly two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, red flag laws wherein individuals could report another individual as a threat to his or her self, as well as to others, would substantially reduce the risk of suicide by gun.

And More

Aside from the most prevalent ideas already stated, some candidates have distinguished themselves with certain proposals and policies.

Harris and Warren, as already mentioned, have vowed to use executive action to implement comprehensive gun safety legislation within their first 100 days. Some of this legislation includes the universal background checks, the assault weapons ban, and the repeal of liability immunity for gun manufacturers.

Warren in particular has a rather extreme goal, wanting to reduce the number of gun deaths in America by 80 percent within her presidency. With this goal in mind, Warren has conceded that “we might not know how to get all the way there yet.” But, she adds that her main focus as president will be on research and revision, believing it not enough to just pass legislation and hope for the best. Rather, she believes in passing a law, and constantly revisiting and expanding on the law, making up for any flaws they find as they update the law.

One thing Warren and others such as Sanders, O’Rourke, Harris, and Booker, want to do is tackle corruption in the government, especially in relation to the NRA’s lobbying efforts within Congress. These candidates and many others who push for gun control point to the NRA as the main force preventing any real efforts to curb gun violence.

These candidates also all agree on preventing gun trafficking, transporting firearms across state borders and circumventing state-specific gun laws.

Now, what does President Trump think? What is his stance? Not wanting to pursue gun control to any real degree, instead Trump has set his aim on violent media and mental illness in America, and contemplating ways to combat these issues he deems as the source of the gun violence. The only real legislation he has backed are the red flag laws mentioned previously.

After all of the big issues, some candidates have some smaller issues they want to look into. Biden wants to explore smart gun technology and potentially convert all firearms to this. Additionally, he wants to look into “ghost guns,” new untraceable firearms crafted using 3D-printing technology.

As the 2020 election approaches, candidates continue to build on and adapt their policies to match and diverge from their fellow candidates. The gun violence epidemic is one that most Americans agree needs some action, whatever that might be. Americans can only wait and see what plan wins out in the election.